She didn’t speak. She was one of the people I was afraid of-I thought there was something bigger “wrong” with her that I couldn’t discern, and that uncertainty made me nervous. I sat where I could do the most observing. She spent her hours in the only separate room in the facility. The nurses always kept the door open because there were no windows, so it was dark enough that I couldn’t see her face. The rest of us shared one space, sleeping on plastic covers stretched over couches that would fold into themselves. Our night shift supervisors would watch us. I would watch everyone else.
One day, they kicked her out of her safe space. I stared at the closed door and listened to her sobbing to the nurses. She sat uncomfortably, shrinking into herself as I reclined in the center of the main room with a book, where I could watch everything. After a few hours of pacing, she began organizing the dresser. It was a disaster. Shelves overflowed with senselessly scrambled contents, containers were labeled but disregarded, hundreds of cards spilled into sanitary items, spilled into board game boxes, spilled into paperback novels, spilled into Crayola markers and rubber pencils-spilled across every cabinet. I teetered between being afraid to bother her and being drawn to her enough to move past that fear.
I read the same line in my book 5 times, gave in, and understood what people meant when they say they’re “walking on eggshells” as I approached her quietly. She didn’t seem to notice me. Or she didn’t care. I didn’t regard her as a “normal” person, but I couldn’t identify what conceptions I had about her either. I wonder how she saw me. I sat down carefully. I took her silence as acceptance and looked to the nurse watching us for confirmation. He smiled softly. We cleaned without communicating. We wiped, sorted, color coded, matched, and organized silently. The nurse took a picture of our end result to show his coworkers. The disaster itself gave me the opportunity to evaluate her closely, and to think.
I found her features beautiful, and came to memorize them. She had every physical trait that I’ve learned to envy over the years. She was of slight build-an ideally slender figure that tried to fold into itself. Her face was ovular, her nose long and straight, her eyes a gentle black, her hair long and dark, thin, but not wispy, pulled back into a single smooth braid. She looked young-which she was, I later learned-to the point where she appeared almost doll-like. Delicate, like someone had folded her together. I had yet to see her smile-but that’s when she’d look her youngest.
At one point, she handed me a card that belonged to a set I was holding. She had slender hands I would soon become familiar with. 8 of spades-that was our first interaction. My heart soared, and I developed a resolve to become her friend-I’m not sure why, or what to be sure about. The only thing I was certain of was that I wanted to know her laughter. That night, I watched her push her food around her plate, and I looked for a reason to talk to her. I found one the next day.
She sat in the corner of the room and folded paper, ostracized from her safe space. They were playing a movie. I took in the nurse’s warm gaze as a signal, my memory of her faint voice the night before as my courage, and I assume that it would be okay to approach her. Or maybe I didn’t think so, and my curiosity defied reasoning. She sat w-shaped, slender legs tucked behind her. I hear that’s not good for you, somehow. I tried to mirror her anyways. I imagined that it was like the vajrasana pose in yoga. I watched her fold carefully torn squares of parchment with the tips of her fingers and the pads of her thumb, and admired her handiwork out loud. She smiled. I took the square she handed me. We repackaged our purposes in boxes, harvested our wishes in cranes, and folded butterflies to reach places that I’ve only heard stories about. One corner met another. Hers to mine. Open. She folds in half, tucked away to save for something better. Open. Two sides cross over. Open. Her nose creased in the center when she smiled. The first magic trick of a crane is a kite. She told me her name-Emi.
Mary, the girl with the tired eyes and the pregnant belly, joined us. Does she talk? She asked me. Ask her yourself. She handed Mary a carefully torn square of paper. “Here,” she said. Emi had purple hearts that swept over her wrists gently and absentmindedly-they lined across thin, wistful cuts. Scabs that looked light and uncertain. A familiar sight. I saw them on the days I was too afraid to go deeper.
I recalled seeing her open a package earlier-carefully folded clothing, a bear, 2 letters-and watched her as she crammed all of it down the trash. They were from her parents. I tuned back into the world and I realized she was talking about them. She doesn’t like them, she said, because…I listened, and I waited for something deeper. It never came.
Later that night, one of the nurses handed us a list of coping mechanisms-for those awkward moments when you’re torn between being afraid of dying and the fear of living through your attempt to reach death. Suicidal? Pause! Here are some safe, healthy activities that you can do instead. (images for reference.) #43: Cartwheeling. That’s ridiculous, I wheezed, who, who would consider pausing a suicide attempt to do a cartwheel? I laughed with an exhausted strength brought on by days’ worth of pent-up hysteria. I laughed until I was teary eyed-and I realized that the rest of the room was silent.
The nurse told me to stop laughing. Firmly, not sternly, but with strength. A strength that told me that she believed in what she was going to say to me. It helps some people, she stated simply. We discovered that I lacked a “healthy coping mechanism.” I don’t need one, I say. She looked at me, scoping the hospital clothing, the disheveled girl they hung off of, the squeaky clean backdrop of the mental health facility, and as she met my gaze-I grinned. That night, Emi did not sleep in the room with the open door. She joined the rest of us, but she sat on the floor by my bed. She was leaving the next day.
While I was there, my only purpose was to go-to break out of the constraints that left us with no room to make decisions, or to think. We built routines that fit into spaces quite like those of the cabinet full of items confiscated for being in the range between “practical” to “potentially dangerous,” and it drove me crazy. She was the other kind. She wept because she did not want to lose her place in the certainty of the looney bin cubicles.
When she left, she would have to follow a new schedule, and new rules. Here, she had already established what people can expect out of her. She had already played ghost. She does not want to leave nothing, or the easiest place to be nothing. The hospital she would be transferred to was safe too, but it was not familiar. And the certainty that strangled me was a safety net for her. When I wake up, I will find 2 yellow paper birds on the edge of my makeshift bed-carefully leaned against each other, one larger than the other. She left us sweet thank you notes in English, and a piece of her in Japanese-which none of us will be able to read. She left at three this morning, a supervisor will tell me.
After I fail to seem normal enough for our psychiatrist, I bring her careful craft with me-there, I sit, I fold, I watch, and I learn. I pray she does not shrink. Our hidden selves weigh on us heavily. It helps when they see daylight. I pray for her to come out again.
Some months later, I realize how wrong it was to look for cuts that are not shallow, tragedy that must be extensive-as I observed, I measured things by my own romantic standard of pain. I feel terrible about my amusement for the entirety of that year. At the mark of the next, though, I realize that my ignorance spurred a better part of my nature. I know now to consider the things and people that I don’t understand or know in the things that I do and say and feel.
I realize also, that I, too, miss the same thing that Emi was afraid of losing.